NASA's next Mars mission will be the first Red Planet spacecraft to lift off from the West Coast. The InSight Mars lander is scheduled to launch on Saturday (May 5) at no earlier than 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT/1105 GMT). Here's how you can watch it in person, or online at Space.com or other locations. You can watch the launch live on Space.com beginning at 6:30 a.m. EDT (1030 GMT), courtesy of a NASA TV webcast.
InSight will provide an interior snapshot of Mars to learn more about how rocky planets are formed. A heat probe will dig under the surface to look at the temperature of the interior. A seismometer will measure marsquakes and meteorite hits. In addition, a radio science instrument will transmit InSight's position to Earth as the planet wobbles in its orbit around the sun. The wobble provides information about the composition and size of the Martian core.
InSight will touch down on Mars' Elysium Planitia on Nov. 26, 2018, and take measurements for at least one Martian year, which is approximately two Earth years. But first, the mission will lift off from Earth aboard an Atlas V-401 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex-3. The complex is 2.5 hours northwest of Los Angeles; the nearest urban area to Vandenberg is Lompoc, California. If the skies are clear, viewers should be able to see the InSight launch across the West Coast, from as far north as Bakersfield, California, to as far south as Rosarito, Mexico (a resort area just south of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico). [In Pictures: NASA's InSight Lander to Probe Heart of Mars]
"If you live in Southern California and the weather is right, you'll probably have a better view of the launch than I will," Tom Hoffman, project manager for NASA's InSight mission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "I'll be stuck inside a control room looking at monitors — which is not the best way to enjoy an Atlas V on its way to Mars."
Where to watch in person
There will be no public access to Vandenberg, but NASA has two official sites from which the public can watch the launch along with NASA/InSight mission team members. There are also are several informal sites where you can gather with local residents to see InSight launch. The agency warns people to be careful of fog and cold in all viewing areas.
"InSight is scheduled to launch in the pre-dawn hours, while it is still dark. Dress in layers and be careful while it is still dark. Dense fog is common during InSight's launch window May 5 through June 8, 2018," JPL stated on a web page explaining how to view the launch in person. InSight's daily launch window lasts for 2 hours, until about 6:05 a.m. PDT (9:05 a.m. EDT/1305 GMT).
Lompoc City Airport will open its tarmac to the public no earlier than 2:30 a.m. PDT, with launch commentary starting at 3:30 a.m. PDT. The address is 1801 North H St., and the entrance to the airport is off O Street, near West Central Avenue. City officials will be available to talk with the public at this location.
Alternatively, St. Mary's Episcopal Church will welcome visitors no earlier than 2:30 a.m. PDT, with launch commentary starting at 3:30 a.m. PDT. Its address is 2800 Harris Grade Rd., Lompoc.
If staying in Los Angeles or Southern California is a better option for you, JPL said the launch will likely be visible from there, based on a launch last year of the NROL-42 spy satellite.
"The most recent previous nighttime launch of an Atlas V from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in September 2017, was bright enough and high enough in the western sky to be clearly visible from back yards, streets, hills and beaches throughout the Los Angeles area and much of Southern California," JPL stated. [360-Degree View: In the Lab with NASA's InSight Mars Lander]
JPL also listed several informal viewing sites:
- In the city of Lompoc, people often view launches from West Ocean Avenue, near Renwick Avenue. "This road is near the launch site, but closes at some point as you near the base. Many people pull off to a safe spot on the side of the road to watch," NASA officials said on the website.
- Another possibility is a park at Providence Landing and Harris Grade (a mountain road) in the Lompoc area, which sometimes is high enough to avoid local fog.
- To the south of Lompoc, there are several beaches that may be open to the public, but NASA advises to check with the local beach to ensure it will be available for the launch. For example, Jalama Beach and Ocean Beach Park, which are next to Vandenberg, generally close for launches.
- A more faraway location is Figueroa Mountain in the Los Padres National Forest and West Camino Cielo Road, off Highway 154 at San Marcos Pass.
- Residents of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties may see the launch when the rocket goes overhead.
Here's a handy Google map from NASA to see the Insight Mars launch viewing locations:
What to expect
JPL also published a video explaining what viewers can expect to see from a few of the more faraway locations from Vandenberg. "To a viewer on the ground, the rocket will appear as a bright speck moving quickly across the sky," JPL wrote in a caption during animations of the rocket's trajectory. (You can view the video to get a more exact idea about where to look during the launch.)
In Santa Barbara, JPL says rocket-watchers should face west, where they'll see the rocket streaking into the sky from about the southwest. At Griffith Observatory in nearby downtown Los Angeles, the rocket will be visible in the northwest. Viewers can also view InSight from the San Diego Air & Space Museum, moving from the northwest to the south.
How to watch online
If you can't make it to California, there are several ways to watch InSight fly online, too. Space.com will stream the launch and NASA commentary live from our home page. Alternatively, news briefings and launch commentary will be streamed on NASA TV and JPL's live video feed. (An archive of the launch will also be available on these pages, in case you aren't able to watch it live.)
NASA Television viewers can also access the channel through digital C-band signals, carried by QPSK/DVB-S modulation on satellite Galaxy-13. You will require a digital video broadcast compliant integrated receiver decoder to see the launch with this method. More technical details are available here.
Editor's note: If you capture a stunning photo or video of NASA's InSight Mars lander launch and would like to share it with Space.com for a story or gallery, send images and comments in to email@example.com. This story, originally posted April 30, was updated on May 3 to include a new visibility map from the United Launch Alliance and webcast details.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace